Growing up in the suburbs of a medium-sized town in the middle of England, I spent a lot of time wishing something exciting would happen. In 1993, when I was 14, it finally did. First, I formed an intense best friendship with Holly, who lived a couple of streets away and was in my class at school. We both had long brown hair (hers wavy, mine straight) and dressed alike, so that from a distance people often couldn’t tell us apart.
Then a local club launched a weekly under-18s night, and a lot of the kids from school started going. Even Holly’s overprotective mother, who thought I was a bad influence because I didn’t go to church, gave her permission, as long as one of our parents always drove us there and picked us up.
So one Tuesday night in September, dressed in our best plaid shirts and black Levis, we each submitted to a perfunctory patdown from a female security guard, then pushed through the double doors to our first nightclub experience. Disco lights flashed off every surface. The music was so loud my legs vibrated. “Boom Shake The Room” was playing and on the dance floor below, the teenaged crowd pogoed as one. Holly and I rushed to join them. We jumped up and down. We waved our hands in the air. We screamed “Tic-tic-tic-tic BOOM!”
A couple of weeks later, I met my first boyfriend there. James was fifteen and looked like a young Brad Pitt and for some reason he chose me to snuggle up to for the last song of the night. (Boyz II Men’s “End of The Road”, an omen I ignored.) We went out for a few weeks until he dumped me because “We’re too different, Diane,” which in retrospect was probably code for: “You don’t seem interested in having sex with me.”
After that, I was too devastated to go out. Then I got stomach flu and took a long time to recover. By the time Holly and I made it back to the club, a couple of months had passed. After my mum dropped us off, we realized there was hardly anyone waiting to get in. Instead of a queue snaking halfway up the street like there had been before, there were just a few groups of teenagers hanging around. Tentatively, we stood behind them. After a few seconds, one of the girls in front of us spun round. She was short and stocky with small eyes, thin lips, and lank brown hair scraped back from her face. I flinched.
“How much money have you got?” she asked. Holly and I looked at each other. Was there any way we could interpret this as a friendly enquiry? The girl stepped forward, and her five friends surrounded us.
“Only enough to get in,” Holly squeaked. I didn’t want to answer, didn’t want to become a victim. I was going to find a security guard, or at least get away from these girls. I started elbowing my way past them and was almost in sight of the door when I felt a grip around my left leg. I turned my head. The girl who wanted (to just know about?) our money had grabbed my calf and was pulling me back. “Get off!” I cried, kicking my foot, still hoping I could get away.
“Don’t. Push. Me,” she growled. I paused, and she let go of my leg and squeezed my arm instead. “Give me your money,” she ordered. I saw something glint in her other hand. I didn’t know if it was a knife, but I thought it might be. I reached into my pocket, pulled out the extra £5 my dad had given me for snacks, and handed it over. The girl and her friends swaggered off, grinning. I couldn’t stop shaking. As soon as we got into the club, we rang Holly’s dad and asked him to come and collect us. I was too embarrassed to think about calling the police, so apart from our parents, we never told anyone else what had happened, and we never went to under-18s night again.
Three weeks later, Holly and I were in town, looking for something to wear to our school’s Christmas party. As soon as we walked into Miss Selfridge, I saw it: a burgundy satin shirt, shimmering under a bank of lights. I walked over to it, plucked the hanger off the rack, and stroked the silky material. I held it against me and looked in the mirror. Perfect. Then I turned over the price tag: £15, reduced from 25. I only had five pounds.
“I could lend you a tenner,” Holly offered.
“But I wouldn’t be able to pay you back.” I put it back on the rack.
As we walked out of the shop, two policemen approached us. One was stocky, with steel-coloured hair; the other was in his twenties, blond and wiry. I flashed back to that night outside the club and felt my heart beat faster. How the hell had they tracked us down?
“Excuse me, girls,” the older one said. “Would you be willing to take part in an identity parade? We’re looking for young ladies of about your age and height, with brown hair.”
“Don’t worry,” said the younger officer. “We already have a suspect. You won’t get in trouble or anything.” I frowned. We had shopping to do.
“I don’t think—” I started.
“You’ll both get five pounds,” he added.
When we got to the police station an hour later, as instructed, we hung around for fifteen minutes as the lobby filled with brown-haired teenage girls, plus a few blondes and redheads trying their luck. Finally, a female officer came out and clapped her hands for us to be quiet. She asked some late arrivals in the doorway to leave and led the remaining sixteen of us down a corridor into a large, bright room with exposed floorboards that looked like it had been set up for a drama workshop. A red velvet curtain hung from the ceiling on the right side and in the middle were ten chairs, each behind a piece of paper with a number scrawled on it.
The blond male officer from earlier joined us and explained what would happen: nine of us would sit down, with the other girls standing behind us. When the suspect arrived, she’d choose where to sit, and whether she wanted anyone else to swap places. The girls who weren’t chosen to be in the official lineup would have to hide behind the curtain when the witnesses came in, so as not to confuse them. “You’ll all get paid, though,” he said. He counted out nine girls, and told us to pick a chair. I chose four, and Holly sat on my right, number five. Then the female officer went to get the suspect.
I was curious to see what she looked like but as it turned out, I already knew. The girl who had mugged me strolled in, arms swinging, her hair loose now but her face instantly recognizable. Holly and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised, trying not to betray our panic. I wasn’t sure what was worse: seeing this girl again, or the idea that anyone thought we looked like her. I risked making eye contact with my mugger, who was clearly a serial offender. She looked back, blank-faced. She didn’t recognize me.
The policeman told her what he’d just told us, and so she swapped a couple of girls around, taking her time, milking her moment, making sure all the girls in the line-up were brunette. Then she pointed to the girl sitting in chair six, next to Holly.
“I’ll go there,” she said. The girl in the seat sprang up and moved to the empty chair at the end of the row. As the suspect sank down, I felt Holly’s fingernails digging into my right palm and looked at her out of the corner of my eye. “Shitting myself,” she mouthed.
Once we were settled, the female police officer left the room again to get the first witness. We were all quiet, except for the suspect. She turned and whispered something to Holly, who nodded and laughed.
“What did she say?” I asked later.
Holly was hysterical. “I have no idea.”
After a few minutes, the officer was back, trailing a pale blonde girl with red-rimmed eyes who clutched a wad of tissues, and a woman I assumed was her mother. She took a quick glance at the lineup from just inside the doorway, then turned her back to us and whispered to the police for a couple of minutes before dashing out of the door, her mother on her heels. “Just one more witness,” the policewoman told us, following them. She came back with another girl, this one wearing a brown ponytail and a haughty expression. She strode up to the lineup, ponytail bouncing, and stared us down as if we were all criminals. I blushed.
After she’d gone, the female officer finally led the suspect away. (She smirked and told us, “See ya.”) Her colleague opened the curtain and the girls behind it fell out, giggling. He pulled a pad and pen from his pocket, looked at a clock on the back wall, and scribbled for a few seconds. “You’ve been here just over an hour,” he said. “Which means you’ll get ten pounds each.” The female officer came back, waving a stack of cash. Some girls cheered. I checked my watch. Twenty minutes until the shops closed. We’d have to run.